William Denison


  • Richest of the Rich position: 150
  • Birth/Death: 1713-1782
  • Origin of wealth: Textiles
  • Wealth: £700,000
  • Net National Income: £195m
  • Net National Income Percent: 0.407%
  • In Today’s Money: £4.515 billion

A proud Yorkshireman, William Denison came from a long line of cloth makers and cloth merchants from Great Woodhouse near Leeds. Little is known of his early years though he was likely to have been educated at Leeds Grammar School and probably served an apprenticeship in the Leeds cloth trade.

He first came to prominence in the 1750s, when he refused to serve the office of Mayor of Leeds on no fewer than four occasions (he had been elected to the corporation in 1750). The corporation brought a case at York Assizes in 1759, settled on condition that Denison agreed to pay its costs and his brother Robert act in his place.

His fortune, largely self-made, appears to have been based on the export of Yorkshire cloth primarily to the Italian market. Clearly it was already substantial by the late 1750s, when he began to buy land on a large scale, a passion which by the 1770s, left him with many thousands of acres scattered across Yorkshire, Durham, Lincolnshire, and Nottinghamshire.

Certainly Denison’s interests were never confined to the cloth export trade. By the end of the 1770s, when the Mediterranean trade was at a standstill, he was dealing extensively in annuities for some of the more extravagant members of the aristocracy, buying government stock, and threatening to sell some of his landed property because the returns on it were inferior to those he could make in the funds.

In 1779, Denison served office as high sheriff of Nottinghamshire with great reluctance, claiming he never spent more than a fortnight a year on his Ossington estate.

On all his properties he was an exacting landlord and a keen agricultural improver, revealing a good knowledge of up-to-date farming practices and woodland management. This fitted with his immensely shrewd nature and the pride he took in his wealth. Although he appears to have visited his scattered estates each year, he was firmly based in Kirkgate, Leeds, in a house surrounded by the bustle of an industrial town, with his work and packing shops crowded into the yard behind. Short on public spirit, he was generous to the poor. In the winter of 1775-6, he provided the poor of Kirkgate with thirty loads of corn and four hundred corves of coal.

Denison did not marry and when he died in 1782, local papers in Leeds later reckoned his fortune to be upwards of £700,000. It passed to his sister’s son, who changed his name to Denison and immediately sent his nine sons to Eton. Many were later to distinguish themselves as leading members of the Victorian establishment. Denison’s £700,000 would be worth £4.5bn in today’s money.

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